The University of Oporto and the process of urban change: an ambiguous relationship.

Sonia Alves, Isabel Vázquez, Paulo Conceição

Research output: Contribution to book/anthology/report/conference proceedingBook chapterResearchpeer-review


This chapter analyses the role of the university as a promoter of urban development in the city of Oporto, in Portugal. The argument is developed as follows: i) the university is an important operator in urban change; ii) however, the relationship established between the university’s real estate policy, the territory itself and urban policies is ambiguous and marked by a gulf which exists between the university’s strategies and the specific problems of the urban context to which it belongs; iii) any interpretation of this ambiguity requires an analysis based on institutions, or on institutional relationships and capacities.
This argument emphasizes the ambiguous and contingent role played by the university in the process of urban development and recognizes that this role is not always explicitly incorporated into the strategy of the main urban agents, such as the local authority or the university itself.
In the case of Oporto an understanding of these characteristics requires articulating two theoretical concerns that feature in studies of universities and cities. On the one hand, this involves the whole debate relating to the identification and characteristics of the effects of universities on the process of urban development (see, for example, Indovina, 1998). It seeks to identify the various different levels of relationships existing between the city and the university, and to develop and apply methodologies that are able to reveal and describe these effects. It is important, above all, to note here that these effects are multiple – affecting the spheres of employment, housing, mobility, interaction practices, leisure and consumer activities and the economic base and its competitiveness – and that this multiplicity may involve different references or territorial scales.
However, this focus on the idea of “ambiguity” is anchored in, on the other hand, a whole other debate relating to the role of institutions in urban development, and of urban development as a relational and institution-building process (see, for example, Cars et al., 2002; Gualini, 2001). In the light of this debate, the specific relationship between the University and the city of Oporto cannot be separated from the process of change taking place in the University itself, or the process of change in urban planning in the city. The relationship between the university, the state and the city therefore provides the backdrop for explaining the role of the university as a promoter of urban development.
In this chapter, the articulation between these two perspectives is addressed in the following way. Firstly, the main characteristics and evolution of the spatial organization of the University of Oporto are presented and recent changes are located within the more general context and in terms of the organization of universities in Portugal. Next, two case studies are presented; a study of the process by which the University facilities have moved out of Oporto’s city centre, which is showing signs of urban crisis, and a study of the gradual construction of a new, more peripheral university area. In different ways both cases reveal the difficult relationship existing between the University’s real estate strategies and the territories nearest to them, where its facilities are located. Both cases also indicate the importance of institutional relations in understanding these difficulties. The theme of the ambiguous relationship between the university and the city that emerges from these two case studies is examined in greater depth in the final section of the chapter.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationGlobal Universities and. Urban Development: Case Studies and Analysis : M. E. Sharpe / Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.
EditorsW. Wievel , D. Perry
Number of pages28
Place of PublicationCambridge
Publication date2008
ISBN (Print)978-0765620392
ISBN (Electronic)0765620391
Publication statusPublished - 2008


  • Urban Regeneration
  • University
  • Urban Policies
  • Portugal


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